Only twice can I remember an entertainer agitating audience members to the point that they stormed out of a performance or sat in stone silence. Richard Pryor was that entertainer.
The first time Pryor did it was at a concert I attended on New Year’s Eve at a small club in Hollywood. Pryor cut loose with a bitter, expletive-laced diatribe on black and white relations. He aimed his sharpest barbs at whites. He needled, hectored and browbeat them for their racial sins. Midway through his rant, the predictable happened. A trickle of whites made a beeline for the door. Pryor, nonplussed by the sound of their marching feet, didn’t relent from his verbal tongue lashing. The trickle quickly turned into a stampede. Even then Pryor didn’t miss a beat; he continued to hurl barbs at their backs.
But Pryor was a take-no-prisoners, equal opportunity baiter. Shortly after he returned from his racial epiphany trip to Africa in 1980, I and other blacks in the theater audience at another Pryor concert were stunned when he stopped the funny stuff, looked dead at the audience and flagellated himself from the stage and other blacks that routinely spit out the “N” word with every sentence.
Pryor could talk. He had practically elevated the word to a high art form. He called the word demeaning, offensive and insulting, and solemnly pledged that he would expunge it forever from his rap. The audience squirmed in puzzled silence. They didn’t know whether to cheer or hiss.
This was not the Pryor that many of us had come to know and love. For the madcap king of irreverent shock humor, the fall-out from his announcement was swift.
Pryor said that his fellow comedians, friends and even some fans lambasted him for going soft and for selling out. Still others accused him of being a black militant. He claims that he got death threats and garbage thrown on his lawn. He took the heat from fans and friends, not because he used the “N” word, but because he had renounced it. A reflective Pryor was dumbstruck that a drug addicted, paranoid, frightened, lonely, sad and frustrated comedian (his self-description) could draw public ire for his simple, but very personal step toward asserting racial pride. Pryor’s tormenting swipes at whites and blacks, and his willingness to take criticism for it, was vintage Pryor. He was an artist who didn’t just live on the edge, but sharpened the racial edge in his art.
Pryor was hardly the first black funnyman or woman to chide, cajole and poke fun at America’s racial sensibilities from the stage. Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White all tossed out occasional one-liners on race issues. But they were always careful that they kept their audience, especially whites, laughing with them and at them.
Pryor also was not the first comedian to sprinkle ribald, dark humor and social commentary through his punch lines. Lenny Bruce beat him to that and in some ways did it better. However, Pryor’s neurotic, frenetic, rapid-fire rap on race and social issues perpetually made audiences laugh and think. He did it without stepping over the line by sounding like a preachy crusader, at least most times. He was the consummate artist even at his wildest drug induced, insulting and irreverent worst, that never forgot his calling. If he had forgotten that, his message would have been a turn off and his audiences would have turned off to him.
But even when they fled to the door in disgust at his barbs or looked at each other in puzzled silence, they still came back. That was tribute enough to his genius. A Pryor concert drained you, but it was a good draining, the kind that made you want to come back for more.
The current crop of the glitter elite of comedians and performers — Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle — have publicly and loudly paid homage to Pryor’s influence on them. But there are legions of other comic artists who never got headline billing who also cut their teeth on Pryor. They’re the conscious comics. That’s the new term for comics that purposely blend race and social commentary with humor. In many cases, there’s less humor in their raps than commentary. Pryor is their godfather.
Pryor will be justly lauded for his more than 40 movies and 20 albums, his much-abbreviated TV show and his Emmy and Grammy for his signature album, “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and for smashing racial barriers for black comics and artists.
Those are fitting remembrances. But it’s not the awards that many of us toast and remember Pryor for. He made us laugh, hoot, curse and squirm in our seats, but he also made us think deeply about America’s racial foibles. That’s something no crazy n***** could do.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst, social issues commentator and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).